Rating: +

Kent Haruf

Plainsong, as defined in the opening of this book, is "the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times; any simple and unadorned melody or air." This book observes the life of a small town through the eyes of a half-dozen residents, interweaving their viewpoints as each perspective is visited in very short, focused vignettes from their life. The opening set of characters is a teacher with two young sons and a wife won't leave her room and a pregnant high school girl whose single mother has no sympathy for her predicament. As the book progresses, the cast widens only slightly to include other town members, including two elderly brothers living on a farm outside town. As you would expect, each of the characters lives reflect on those of the others, with generational lines being used sometimes to show where life choices lead, and sometimes to show the similarity between the issues that most people face in life.

In that setting, this book manages to distinguish itself from the common "pregnant girl finds herself with help from other town folks with their share of problems". For one, instead of a supporting cast that mistreats the girl and her friends, the peripheral characters are basically decent people who may not being going out of their way to be helpful, but aren't being set up as foils either. Neither are the main characters exceptional. This is a story of real life in a real town, where unfortunate things sometimes happen and don't necessarily represent a melodrama of good versus evil.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this book is the tone of the narration. We see most of the characters at major turning points in their lives. More than in most books, these characters grow and change during the year that this book spans. However, the narrative is muted. There is little dramatic dialog or gripping action. The most significant events are presented in the same style as the most mundane. What we are seeing is just real life, and it is ultimately all significant.

I did note that my favorite characters in the book were the two sets of brothers. While I was interested in the pregnant girl's situation, I didn't feel like I understood her motivations. I'm unsure whether she was meant to be a central figure around which the other characters could focus, in which case her personality didn't need to be overly developed, or if the author was just better at writing men than women. This was something I observed after the fact, though, and didn't impact my enjoyment of reading the book.

Overall, I wouldn't characterize this as a must-read book, but I found it to be one of the better books from its genre. Some of the characters were very well done, and the book as a whole was well put together without excessive plotlines or conflicts. A moderate +.


Review written June 2001.


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